Saturday, 18 May 2013

iGCSE -decide for yourself

Job done. Breathe.

Yesterday saw the last exam for the Cambridge iGCSE and the completion of a huge shift in focus this year for our English Department.

We really struggled to find help and advice from people who had done the exam before, so I thought this might prove helpful to those considering the move.

Firstly, your most important question answered:

Yes, the Cambridge English (First Language) iGCSE does count in your A*-C figures.

Second question:

Yes, you do have to do Literature as well, but it does not have to be the same board and they don't have to pass. We stuck with AQA for Lit. this year.

The course has slightly confusing options, but goes like this:

Speaking and Listening: Presentation and Discussion
Reading exam: Core (like Foundation) or Extended (like Higher)
Writing exam (same for everyone) OR 3 pieces of coursework.

As I understand it, iGCSE will have Speaking and Listening as a component until 2015 despite the changes to normal GCSE English.


Students have to give a 4 minute presentation on a topic of their choice. This is followed by a discussion which leads on from their presentation for 5-6 minutes.

Most of our kids are confident speakers (opinionated!) and have always done well on S&L. It is also a skill employers really value. Removing it from GCSE (especially mid-course) is stupid and unfair. The assessment is one to one, not in front of a class, which helps those of a nervous disposition.

All the students need to be recorded (which does not help those of a nervous disposition). You need to allow 15 mins per student. Do the maths. If you are entering 200 students, then that is 50 hours. Then you need to allow time for moderation if more than one person does it. Also allow for those who forget to turn up, those who 'forget', those who are sick, and those who are 'sick'. Oh yeah... and breaks for the interviewer! Someone really needs to be off timetable for around 3 weeks to be able to do it. We had one teacher and our trusty Faculty Support doing it over a fortnight. The cover also has to be a consideration, and you will need your whole school behind you as kids will be out of other subjects. Basically, it is not an aspect of the course designed to make life easy for large centres.

It is also extremely stressful for those leading it. For one thing, they will be having discussions about everything important to teenagers from football to divorce, from football to knife crime, and from football to eating disorders. Seriously, some of the discussions were quite upsetting, one even ended in tears.

READING EXAM (with a few marks for writing)

We have entered students for both the Core paper and the Extended.

They tell you the Core paper has 2 questions, based on reading non-fiction style texts, but it is actually a series of lots of short questions worth a couple of marks each (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.). It is a doddle. The skill level required does not go above inference and most of it is retrieval. They have to summarise too, a skill we had not ever taught before, but not exactly a challenging one. It is capped at a C. There is no analysis or comparison required.

Oddly, the Extended paper may be even easier to pass than the Core! There are 3 questions based on 2 texts. For the first one they have to read Text A
and rewrite it from a different perspective. The second asks you about Language in two paragraphs of Text A (but you can just do a PEE chart, not paragraphs) and the last one asks you to summarise part of Text A and Text B. Again, no comparison required. It covers the range A*-E.

If teaching hoop jumping is your thing then this exam is your dream come true.

Our middle ability really struggled to finish the paper in 2 hours, something I found very surprising. Some of the vocabulary in the texts is very challenging, but then they can always choose something else to write about if they don't understand something!
The pass mark on both papers has been very low in previous years. 34 out of 50 would get you an A. My AQA D graders have been getting Bs in mocks. I don't see how that can be maintained with the number of schools shifting over to iGCSE if the pass rate has to be maintained nationally. I fully expect another shift in the grade boundaries this year. There was a 10 mark shift overall in November.

WRITING EXAM (with a few marks for reading)

The same for everyone. Question 1 asks students to read the source material and convert it into something else (very similar to Qu 1 on the Extended paper). Question 2 is one from a choice of 6 - two argumentative / discursive, two descriptive, two narrative.

Students are given the information and ideas for their writing in Qu 1. They do not have to be particularly interesting, creative or have any general knowledge. For Qu 2 there is no specific form or audience given, so they can't make mistakes there.

We got scripts back and clearly this paper is marked negatively. EVERY mistake was circled. Your students need to be VERY accurate writers to do well on this paper. No comma splices, fragments, rogue apostrophes or spelling mistakes!


They have to complete 3 pieces of writing - one informative / persuasive piece, one narrative / descriptive, and one in response to an article they have read.

It's coursework, you know the benefits: they can redraft it (once), they can word process it, and they can check their spelling and grammar. If you do the coursework before the exam entries are done, you can put any students with incomplete or substandard folders in for the exam instead (no, you can't enter them for both).

The standard required for a pass is very high. Much higher than for the exam as they take into consideration that students have access to IT and should proofread their work.

The proof of the pudding...

Well, we won't know if this was the right decision until August. What we found from November was that, compared to AQA (and for our students), the S&L is of a similar standard, the Reading component is a LOT easier, the Writing component is a LOT harder.

A typical AQA C/D grade student got C/D in the S&L, a C on the Core paper, and a D/E on the writing. But we did do it with only a 4 week run up! Hopefully this time they will be better prepared (plus they are doing the Extended paper in the hope that better reading marks will make up for the inaccuracies in their writing).

So, should you go for it?

I'm very much still on the fence. It still has S&L, which is important. I like the focus on accurate writing, despite our students struggling with it. I really don't like the extremely narrow range of reading (and skills) required.

Have you also noticed there is no requirement for analytical essay writing? You may want to consider how that will prepare your students for the demands of A level.

Finally, a lover of Literature, I hate to see it get such a raw deal. Students will only study prose fiction, poetry and drama (including Shakespeare) when they do Literature. Whilst we still have the ridiculous loophole that you don't have to pass it, just be entered, some students will not even be taught the set texts. As long as they write a paragraph for cwk, and turn up to the exams and write their name, it validates their English qualification. If you are under pressure to improve English, then sacrificing Literature is one way to go about it, but that is surely going to leave a nasty taste in most English teachers' mouths.